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Iowa Straw Poll: A carnival that kills campaigns

Iowa residents register to vote for Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. at the GOP Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011. AP

AMES, Iowa - The Iowa Straw Poll is something of a fraudulent affair, an alleged test of candidate support in which votes are bought and Iowans are bribed to attend with free barbecue and entertainment.

But it sure is fun.

The straw poll, for the uninitiated, is a carnival-like gathering where 15,000 or so Iowans cast ballots for the Republican presidential candidates. The campaigns bus in their supporters and pay their $30 entry fee; though most of the candidates on the ballot give speeches during the straw poll festivities, most attendees arrive with their minds made up. The don't often have much of a choice: To get on Tim Pawlenty's free busses to the event, for example, Iowans had to sign a pledge promising to vote for him.

Here on the campus of Iowa State University, straw poll attendees are offered free concerts - Michele Bachmann's air-conditioned tent, which was much too small for her supporters, featured Randy Travis - along with pounds of food and assorted gifts. The National Rifle Association handed out bright orange "NRA" hats; Bachmann volunteers walked around offering hot dogs and bottles of water to anyone clad in a free Bachmann t-shirt.

Some campaigns choose to largely ignore the festivities. Mitt Romney, who won the straw poll four years ago, elected not to purchase tickets or bus in supporters this time around. Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich also didn't try to buy their way to victory - Huntsman in part because his moderate views don't play well with the socially-conservative GOP electorate, and Gingrich in part because his campaign didn't have the resources to make a hard push. (Gingrich did give a speech here this morning.)

For other campaigns, however, the straw poll offered the opportunity for a major boost to their presidential prospects, in large part because the media uses the event to shape stories about the candidates going forward. Pawlenty, who was expected to be a strong challenger to Romney but has failed to catch fire, has spent lavishly in an attempt to win the straw poll and turn the narrative about his campaign around.

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich.; businessman Herman Cain; Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. pose for a group photo at the Republican Party's Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011. AP

Pawlenty backers walked around the grounds Saturday in green Pawlenty t-shirts with "12" on the back; the campaign offered them Famous Dave's barbecue at its spacious tent and got Mike Huckabee to come onstage to play base with one of the bands Pawlenty had brought in to entertain supporters. (Herman Cain and Rick Santorum also had Huckabee, who has not endorsed a candidate, perform at their tents.)

The scene at Pawlenty's spacious tent was relaxed; at Bachmann's smaller tent it was something of a mob scene. Lines stretched across the parking lot, forcing Bachmann supporters to wait 40 minutes to register and get food; one woman, leaning on a walker with tennis balls on the bottom, said she hoped the food wouldn't run out by the time she finally got to the front. (It didn't.) A homeschooling group handed out "homeschoolers for Bachmann" t-shirts; when the candidate herself, joined by her husband Marcus, emerged for brief appearances, she was mobbed by adoring supporters, many of whom said they were praying for her.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, had paid the Iowa Republican Party, for whom the straw poll serves as a fundraiser, more than any other candidate for the right to set up a large tent in a prime location; he offered a dunk tank, a giant inflatable Uncle Sam and an inflatable slide emblazoned with the words "The Sliding Dollar." Paul's supporters seemed, on average, about 30 years younger than the rest of the people in attendance; they espoused live-and-let-live libertarian ideals at odds with the unblinking social conservatism of those gathered around the "Values Voters" bus.

Santorum tried to win over attendees with peach jam from his family farm and a message of unblinking allegiance to traditional values; the line at his tent was long, though nothing compared to Bachmann's. (One Bachmann supporter standing in the Santorum line said she was just there for the food.) Herman Cain had a smaller presence (and noticeably worse food) than some of his rivals, but he was perhaps the one candidate embraced by nearly everyone in attendance - though it was unclear how much of that would translate into votes. Little-known Rep. Thaddeus McCotter also had a tent, though it was something of a ghost town - no surprise since most Americans, including those present here, don't know he's running for president.

The lines to vote in the straw poll itself were exceedingly long; speakers throughout the day implored attendees to get in them anyway - and as quickly as possible. Texas governor Rick Perry wasn't here, but his presence was felt: Perry announced his campaign in South Carolina during the straw poll, and his supporters, clad in "Americans for Rick Perry" shirts, could be seen wandering the grounds. Among the other t-shirts worn were one with a picture of a fetus that read "I am a person," another that showed President Obama as the Batman joker, with the word "socialist" at the bottom; and one that read "Organize for Palin - get your grrr on." Attendees were handed "voter guides" on immigration, gun rights and other issues; one man, who was handing out a guide condemning Romney, Gingrich, Pawlenty and Huntsman, said "there's a lot of gun grabbers in there."

The straw poll results will be announced around 6 p.m. Iowa time, and Bachmann and Pawlenty in particular will be sitting on the edge of their seats. Bachmann needs a victory to maintain her momentum and try to put to rest the perception that she is an unelectable fringe candidate; Pawlenty, whose fund-raising has somewhat dried up as his campaign sputtered, will face enormous pressure to drop out if he doesn't finish strong and make the case that he is viable. Cain, Santorum and Paul, meanwhile, hope a stronger-than-expected finish will mean an uptick in donations and media coverage for their long-shot bids for the nomination.

Iowa straw poll: A primer